37signals And The Future Of Basecamp

The news of 37signals’ dropping of the company name and switch to the name and focus on Basecamp was interesting for a few reasons. However, the dropping of the original core brand wasn’t really one of them. Since the 37signals brand had taken a back-seat in the Basecamp, Campfire and Highrise product websites, that change in itself probably means a lot to them, a bit to the design industry, but little to their products’ customers.

Since 1minus1 falls into the ‘design industry’ category, it interested me for a few reasons. Having followed their writings for a number of years, and followed their views on simplicity in design, development and messaging, what’s of particular interest to me is in seeing how they continue to follow those tenets about simplicity. A key question is – if they significantly increase the resource that will be working on the Basecamp product, how do they maintain that?

Before I start here with looking at the issues they might have, I’ll disclose the obvious here – of course this is all conjecture. Clearly I don’t know how they do their resourcing or what they work on – only that they have changed their resourcing and are focusing their business. For the purposes of this piece, I’m basing the views on a simple doubling of resource (bearing in mind they are sunsetting Campfire and Highrise or selling them). It could of course be that they spent the vast majority of their time on Basecamp anyway already. Anyway …

Let’s start off by saying that you have a team of twenty working on a product. That team is made up of developers, designers, support, UX and business management. Then you take that team and double it by taking the extra twenty people off other products. It seems to me that since you are going to (taken in the most simplistic terms) double the amount of developers, designers, support, UX and business management resource, you have a couple of interesting problems.

That problem isn’t in support – that one’s easy; you clearly improve your support because you have more support people focused on one product, and better support means greater retention of customers and stronger revenue – no question.

The problem probably isn’t around business management either. Since you’ve stayed with the same amount of resource you probably need the same amount of business management (although you could maybe streamline a little as it’s only one product you are focused on.).

In my view, the core issues are the following:

ISSUE 1: Now that you have an increased team of developers and designers working on one product, how do you make sure that you improve that product, without overloading it with extra functionality or over-designing it?

Having limited resources working on something often makes people more innovative. Restriction makes for brilliant art, and often brilliant software. The two core reasons that Basecamp is better than other similar systems we’ve used is that firstly it isn’t overloaded with functionality. Secondly, although it’s not what I would call a great looking product, it doesn’t need to be and this is also something that’s pretty clever about it – visually, it’s totally simple (love it or hate it, it definitely isn’t complicated to use).

So Basecamp is winning on both fronts there. Nailed it. But the problem is now you have twice the resource, you have an increased team of designers and developers who will want to design and develop new things. They’ll want to do more than just tweak existing functionality and hone design. But if they are allowed to do this, how will the simplicity that has made Basecamp a product great remain? If the product loses that simplicity, it falls right into the trap of a million other systems like it – bloated and over-complex with 90% of its users only using 10% of the functionality. In other words, you make the product too complex, and you waste money and time building functionality most customers don’t want, or have the time to explore.

ISSUE 2: Employee happiness. Working on one product/client – no matter how amazing that software is – gets boring. Having worked for a couple of web/software houses before starting 1minus1, I’ve seen this many times. It’s happened to me, and I’ve seen it in the people who have worked with and for me in the past. You have a great designer or developer, they do some great work in the short to medium term, but then boredom sets in. Diminishing returns.

This is normal. We all need new challenges; new things to focus on. To feel that rush of adding something valuable to something new and different. Basecamp say they will keep all their employees and no-one will leave as of now. Although they have an amazing, well-known brand and are a very successful company, I’m not sure how they keep a one product company team interested over a longer period of time. Perhaps this doesn’t matter in reality as there will always be people lining up to work for them. Fresh people mean fresh ideas and new levels of motivation and enthusiasm – and that largely solves the problem. But it’s a challenge all the same and it will be interesting to hear how they deal with that.

So having considered those two key issues, let’s move on to what we do know. What we know is that Basecamp is R&Ding a new version of the tool at the moment, so the increase in resource will probably speed up that work, and probably improve the next version too. But after that, with increased resource, and double the team wanting to make their mark, how they manage to keep that simplicity – the very thing that have made Basecamp great in the first place – will be a really interesting challenge.

From a marketing perspective 37signals (now Basecamp) have pitched this really well. No sensible company would be happy to sunset a product if they can sell it, but the message is that they are looking to focus on Basecamp, and then the happy by-product is that they maybe sell Campfire and Highrise. The announcement works well in that it makes this less about capitalising on the sale of those products, and instead making the change all about making Basecamp better.

The Basecamp team are very very good – we know that, and they have every chance of succeeding. But it’s not necessarily as simple as it seems. Let’s hope it’s a big win for Basecamp the product as well as the company

Jonathan Hill